Tag Archives: plot

Get With The Programme

Show pogrammes selectionI always get a programme when I go to a show.  Out of general interest, I would get a programme anyway, but I admit that in part this is a defence mechanism; I’m frequently there to review the show, so I need to know who played whom.

So what should go into a programme?  Well, as I say, I need to know who did what.  I’m quite partial to actors’ biographies because it reminds me where I’ve seen them before.  (Oh yes, when I last saw Julie she was being rogered over a table in Kiss Me Kate.  That’s Lucy?  She looks completely different.  She put in a great performance as Andy.  I remember Brian from Titanic; went down really well…)  A list of scenes and songs may be welcome.  Something about the writer?  Something about the history of the show?  Something about the company in general?

What I don’t want to read in a programme is the plot.  There may be a place for that in a programme for an opera sung in a foreign language, but otherwise, giving me the plot is the job of the show, not the programme.  After all, not everyone has a programme, and not everyone who has one has time to read it beforehand.  But what happens when the vocal lines are so complex that the audience can’t hear individual words to a song?  In that case the production has to find another way to convey the plot; from the stage, that is, not from the written word.  Usually this is called acting.

This is, of course, an opinion.  Some people want the comfort of knowing what they’re going to see before they see it.  I’m happier with theatre as a voyage of discovery, so when I got to my seat last night, I deliberately avoided the plot page of the programme, and I didn’t know about the Get Out Of Jail Free card that allowed a neat resolution to the dilemmas of the characters.  Thus I owe a debt of gratitude to the lady in the row behind me who, before curtain up, for the benefit of those around her, read the whole thing aloud.

Does the audience mind about repeats?

I recently asked an author to revise a script before we would publish it.  The reviewer had liked the play, but felt that the same plot device had been used too many times.  In feeding this back to the author, we took the view that the audience would notice the repetition and think worse of the play for it: too much coincidence and not enough invention.

A couple of days ago, via an excellent production at the Plaza Theatre, Romsey, I reacquainted myself with Much Ado About Nothing, and discovered that Shakespeare had used a plot device five times – and it was the same one that we had complained about.  The plot of Much Ado runs like this:-

  • Willian ShakespeareClaudio fancies Leonato’s daughter, Hero, but is too shy to approach her directly.
  • Claudio’s liege lord, Don Pedro, offers to do the wooing on Claudio’s behalf.
  • This plan is overheard by a servant of Antonio, Leonato’s brother.  Antonio reports the scheme to Leonato who approves.
  • The plan is also overheard by Borachio, who reports it to his lord, the wicked Don John.  Don John is Don Pedro’s brother and wishes to make trouble in his brother’s camp.  He does this by telling Claudio that Don Pedro is wooing Hero for himself.  This plot is foiled and Hero is betrothed to Claudio.
  • Meanwhile, Don Pedro, Claudio and Leonato decide to turn the war of words between Benedick, one of Don Pedro’s knights, and Beatrice, Leonato’s niece, into a romance.  The three discuss Beatrice’s supposed love for Benedick where they know that Benedick will overhear them.  Hero and her friend Ursula discuss Benedick’s love for Beatrice where she will overhear them.  This goes well.
  • Borachio and Don John hatch another plot through which Don Pedro and Claudio come to believe that Hero is unfaithful.  After this has been successfully executed, a group of (otherwise idiotic) night watchmen overhear Borachio boasting about the plot and arrest him.  Thus eventually the scheme is undone and Claudio is reconciled with Hero.  (Beatrice and Benedick also plight their troth for as long as they can agree not to bandy words.)

(If you want a longer summary of Much Ado About Nothing, you can find Bill Tordoff’s thirty-minute abridgement of the play here.)

Did you spot it? The whole of the story hinges on things being overheard – two deliberately (to unite Beatrice and Benedick), three accidentally.  (There is arguably a sixth instance because Claudio believes he is hearing things from Don John that were not destined for his ears.)

Does this matter?  Well, yes it does if it makes the audience think that a play is dull or contrived.  Much Ado, as the title tells us, is a light piece – a romantic comedy if ever there was.  Nevertheless, it still needs a plot.  We enjoy the verbal sparring of Beatrice and Benedick, the melodramatic villainy of Don John and the silliness of the Watch, so Shakespeare gets away with it.  For modern writers, audiences will be less forgiving.

In Character

At the start of every play there is (or at least, there should be, even for a monologue), a list of roles.  The main point of this list is to tell the reader who’s in the play.  The reader might be a producer, director or actor, it might also be the publicist for a show.  I have some strong views about what should be in this list – and what should not.  These are opinions, of course, but they are based on some degree of rationality…

They’re Characters

I take the view that ‘cast‘ means the actors who play the characters.  The list should therefore be headed ‘Characters’.  (You could also say Dramatis Personae, but only if you want to sound pompous.)

Name Names

I know it sounds obvious, but the character list should list every character, preferably by name, but certainly with a clear tie to the way lines are assigned in the body of the script.  Thus if the lines are assigned to “Man”, the Character list should include “Man” (rather than Mr Smith), though it would be better to give him a name in both places.  (When I wrote that in another post, Andrew Allen took to Twitter (@my_grayne) with the excellent response “I always name characters if for no other reason than: ‘Helen’ looks better on an actor’s CV than ‘Woman 4’”)

There really is nothing like a dame!Elementary Sexism

If a character’s gender is essential to the plot and not obvious from the name, then it needs to be stated in the character list (because you really don’t want to make a fool of the casting director).
Sam could be male or female, and if this matters, it is better to say which.  Mrs Bonaventure is obviously female, so you don’t need to comment on gender unless your character is a drag artiste.

Relationship Status

The relationship between characters can be useful, usually as a pointer to relative age.  For example describing Gemma as ‘Steve’s daughter’ puts some useful constraints on casting.  (But how old is Gemma?  If it’s germane to the plot, then ‘Steve’s teenage daughter’ or ‘Steve’s adult daughter’ is appropriate but more constraining.)
It isn’t Complicated
Describing Liz as ‘Steve’s third wife, previously married to Anton and having an affair with Carl’ is mainly information that the reader should discover in the text.  (And if it isn’t part of the plot, then it’s irrelevant.)  Usually ‘Steve’s wife’ will be enough.

A wicked squireRole in the play

Squire Blackheart – the Villain.
If the characters are not related to one another, it may be useful to say the role that they play in the drama.  This may, in the above melodramatic example, be a generic type (useful in things like pantomime – Principal Boy, Principal Girl, Dame – because it tells the reader what to expect from the role.)  It may also be a job, because it helps the reader to distinguish between ‘Sister Louise – a nun’ and ‘Sister Sara – a nurse’.


If a character’s age is essential to the plot, then it should be stated in the character list, either as a very specific age, or as a range.  (The broader the range, the less essential it would seem to be – and ‘relationship’ would be the more likely determinant of casting.
I am rather cautious about putting in ages, and I have a general feeling that this should be the last item in most descriptions.  The reason for this is that one of the potential uses of the character list is for the publicist to copy and paste into the programme for the show.  In that case, age may be a distraction – it may have been useful to the director in casting the roles, but once they’re cast, they are what they are.

Lose the Plot

The character list should not reveal the plot.  Get rid of anything that hasn’t happened yet that will happen in the story.  Get rid of any secrets that will be revealed by the script: ‘Paul the gardener, Ingrid’s long-lost son’ is plot.  Imagine that cut and pasted into the programme for the show.  This is not the place to give it away.

Eschew Adjectives

The character list is not the place for a pen-portrait of your character.  If you find yourself writing ‘she is timid, but anxious to please and to be liked’ then delete it.  That part of the character’s behaviour should be evident in the script, and the actor should be encouraged to find it there.  You should not use the character list to tell the reader something they can’t find in the text.  If there’s an essential back story and it isn’t in the text, how is the actor supposed to communicate it to the audience?  (Even if you put it in the show programme, not everyone buys one and not everyone absorbs every word before the curtain rises.)
A show of hands for AbanazaThere is a case to be made for giving a character portrait for cases where a casting call might occur before the actors have seen the script, but if you wish to do that, it belongs in production notes at the end of the text, not in the character list.  Likewise costume descriptions belong in production notes, not in the character list.
The one thing that might be legitimate in the character list is some physical characteristic that is essential to the plot (so, for example, if Gary must be taller than Jeff, that’s important to casting).

The Final Test

Does the description fit on a single line?  If not, it’s far too long.  This encompasses all of the above points, but is also an aesthetic choice – if each description fits on one line, it just looks better.